Contact Us

Who Are the Hebrews?

Who Are the Hebrews?


The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham,1 and the name commonly refers to his descendants, known as the Jewish people. The word for Hebrew used in the Bible is עברי (pronounced "Ivri"), meaning "of or pertaining to עבר-ever." So what does "ever" mean?

The Midrash2 quotes three opinions as to where this name comes from:

  1. Rabbi Yehuda taught that the word "ever" means "opposite side." Abraham believed in one G‑d, and the rest of the world worshipped man-made gods. Thus, "Abraham stood on one side, and the entire world stood on the other side."
  2. Rabbi Nechemiah opined that it is a reference to Ever, great-great-grandson of Noah (usually Anglicized as "Eber"), ancestor of Abraham. Eber was one of the bearers of the monotheistic tradition which he had learned from his ancestors Shem and Noah and passed on to his grandson Abraham. Since Abraham was a descendant and disciple of his, he is called an Ivri.
  3. The rabbis held that the word is a reference to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the river and was not a native Canaanite. "Ivri" also refers to the fact that Abraham spoke the Hebrew language—thus named because of its ancient origins, preceding the development of the other languages current at that time.3

So Hebrew means the one who is opposed, on the other side, and different from all others. Abraham was a solitary believer in a sea of idolatry.

Perhaps this is why the second person to be called a Hebrew is Joseph.4 A nice Hebrew boy ends up in Egypt, the decadent land of the Pharaohs, where people and the celestial spheres are worshipped instead of G‑d; a lone teenager with outlandish Hebrew beliefs from the far side, in the strongest society of his day. Joseph did not cave in to the pressures. He stood firm in the faith of his ancestors and ultimately rose to the top of Egyptian society, until he was second to Pharaoh himself. In fact, it was after the wife of Potiphar had tried to tempt him into sinning, and he withstood the temptations, that he is first referred to as an Ivri—for then he showed that he was a faithful bearer of the contrary tradition of Adam, Noah, Shem, Eber, and Abraham.

So who are the Hebrews today?

The Jewish people, who after over 3,000 years still cling to their peculiar beliefs and are not swayed by the passing fancies of pop culture, are the same contrary people as their ancestors—the Hebrews of old.

Bereishit Rabbah 42:8,
While the other languages developed after the dispersion which followed the building of the Tower of Babel, Hebrew preceded them all. Perhaps it is etymologically related to the word עבר-past, since it is a language from the past.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Akiba TORRANCE November 12, 2017

Before we had all these immigration laws ans disputes when a Russian living in France came to America to stay, they became an American. When those from Spain, England, Italy, Germany, etc moved to Chile and decided to stay there -- they became Chileans. It is as simple as that. You get to decide what you wish to be and wish to be called and if your offspring remain culturally united, they will use the same term. Rarely do people's offspring remain culturally united over the many centuries. We Jews, / we Hebrews have so remained in significant enough numbers. We will decide what "we" refer to ourselves as and no one else. And how do languages develop? Ever traced the origin / the roots of the English Language or its offspring the American Language? Who originated the term American, the term Chilean? Reply

Patrick Indpls. July 11, 2017

I speculate that the term "Hebrew", is nothing else than Abraham settling in Hebron- ie Hebrew? Reply

Menachem Posner August 22, 2017
in response to Patrick:

That is correct. In the original Hebrew, Hebron (pronounced khevron) is entirely unrelated to Hebrew (pronounced ivri). English managed to mangle both words to the degree that they happen to be similar. Reply

Terry NYC June 10, 2017

I pose this question. How can one sell their birthright? Here's my logic, We are discussing a blood tradition, like selling ones last name or honors associated with birth order. Reply

James Jones O.K.C December 31, 2016

Esau, was not a Hebrew, he sold his birthright to Jacob, for bread and a pot of (Lentiles). He also after that was called an Edomite .Don"t read, (study) the book. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA April 25, 2017
in response to James Jones:

Esau: Hebrew Idolater in Chief Being Hebrew is about being on the other side, meaning that being Hebrew is a call to national individuality on a personal scale. Esau and Jacob were exact opposites. That Esau had a fervor for individuality, even in the womb is the earmarks of being Hebrew. He wasn't just a regular idolater. Esau was passionate about idolatry. However, this did not make him an Israelite. He did not get that blessing. Reply

Anonymous New York April 25, 2017
in response to James Jones:

Hebrew Hebrew Esau was a Hebrew because Isaac was his father regardless whether he sold his birth rights to Jacob or not, and Isaac was Hebrew. Reply

rodel de castro December 30, 2016

in history abraham had two sons ishmael and isaac in bible only isaac mentioned where was ismael? Reply

Boruch Skokie, IL August 23, 2017
in response to rodel de castro:

you just missed it, read again) Reply

Betty MI October 14, 2017
in response to rodel de castro:

Esau was Hebrew Esau and Jacob were twins with Esau being born first, so when Esau sold his birthright he was no longer the heir, but still an Hebrew Reply

Anonymous October 15, 2017
in response to rodel de castro:

abraham had six sons after the death of sarah to a lady named keturah and were hebrew to where did they all go Reply

Anonymous November 9, 2016

Interesting... Reply

Anonymous 64861 November 7, 2016

I understand that the Jews were Hebrews but where are Easu's desendtants? They were also hebrews and who are they today? Reply

Anonymous Australia June 5, 2016

What about the 10 Tribes of Israel?? They never united with Judah.. Reply

lala gomez marysville April 27, 2016

this is good information Reply

Anonymous World February 26, 2016

If Abraham came from Shem who was black, Egypt is in Africa and Joseph was considered Pharaoh's son. Why do we teach that Jews today are white when the truth is they are Hebrew's the blacks. When will you all se that truth, see Rev. 2/9 & 3/9. You have to look like someone to pass as them. Reply

Lolita Haughton Hampton April 2, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

so very true. They don't want to know the truth Reply

Donald February 13, 2016

When were Hebrews named Abraham, was not a Hebrew. He was first called a Hebrew by the people in canaan, because he came from across the river, and settled in Hebron. Abraham was a Semite, which is a descendant of Shem. Abraham, and those with him, and after him, were called Hebrews. Jacob, (Isaac's son) name was changed by God to Israel, and Jacob's children were called, the children of Israel. One of those children was named Juda. Judas'children were called Jews. Jews are descendants of the tribe of Juda. People are also called Jews, who practice the religion of Judaism. Reply

Paul Toronto June 1, 2017
in response to Donald:

From my heart "thank you" Reply

Aundrey Michigan June 7, 2017
in response to Donald:

Although those in the Tribe of Judah are certainly Jews, so are those in the other Tribes also Jews. Reply

Steve November 15, 2017
in response to Aundrey:

No, not according to the Bible but I think modern day interpretation says they are. Only Benjamin and Judah make up"Jews" and after the exile, only those two tribes and levites returned. The other ten are lost to the ages. Reply

Anonymous January 31, 2016

How can Abraham be the first Hebrew and it says that he spoke the hebrew language? Did he invent his own language? Joseph the second to be called hebrew is said to have outlandish hebrew beliefs where did the beliefs come from? The implication is that there were hebrews prior to Reply

Fred U.S. January 21, 2016

Why not just call yourselves Hebrew rather than Jews since in the Hebrew language their is no letter "J" anyway. i assume that the hebrew People of old never referred to themselves as Yews. Reply

Akiba Torrance November 12, 2017
in response to Fred:

The word, with a J, is Jews because you are speaking and writing in English -- and that is how in English / in the American Language, etc. they chose to translate a particular word. When one speaks English, one uses English words, when one speaks / writes Hebrew -- one uses Hebrew letters, sounds, and words. At least, if one wants to be understood in a given language. You'll need to research the origin, etc of the English language -- and maybe its partial predecessor German, to find out why they chose to use "J" in place of a Y. I have never understood that wither. Let us know the results of that research if your so endeavor. Reply

Anonymous jamaica October 6, 2015

Jewish what do they mean by 'Hebrews to man' Reply

Lezlie San Diego September 20, 2015

When did the name Hebrew become Jewish? Reply

Anonymous Gary Indiana September 15, 2017
in response to Lezlie:

When they wanted to change history to fit them not us Reply

Kiplimo Kemboi Eldoret-Kenya August 3, 2015

Human Believes No society can be without religious beliefs. And just as every individual believes that he/she is better than the other, every society believes so. Reply

Anonymous July 12, 2015

Hebrew Thank you for this interesting story, much more meaningful than going through my flash cards or app, the word will stick with me. I was only learning the word Ivri last week.

I was also intrigued and wondered why G-d seems to require his people to cross a body of water and go over "to the other side" in order to follow His command. Reply

Terry July 10, 2015

Huh? The biblical word Ivri (Hebrew: עברי), meaning to traverse or pass over, is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and Latin Hebraeus. In the plural it is Ivrim, or Ibrim. The hieroglyphic rendering of the Egyptian word š3sw (Shasu) means "those who move on foot".

I'm curious to understand how did you arrive at that conclusion? In Genesis 10:21 Shem, the elder brother of Ham and Japheth, first-born son of Noah, is referred to as the father of the sons of Eber (עבר), which may have a similar meaning. A Hebrew means "one who crosses the plains of Sumer". Hebrew is an act, not an nationality and not a language. it was first coined when the people of Sumer saw Abraham who was born a Chaldean, who spoke Chaldea, crossed the plains of Sumer after he came into contact with God. See the book of genesis when Abraham meets Melchisidec. So Abraham became a Hebrew because of the act of "crossing". The Hebrew language is really Chaldean. Reply

Menachem Posner July 10, 2015

To Craig Hamilton Eber (Ever) was called just that. Abraham was the first to be called an Ivri, or Hebrew, which means "of Ever." Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA July 10, 2015

Huh? How could Abraham be called the first Hebrew when Eber [Hebrew] was the name for Abraham's Great, Great, Great Grandfather? It seems that the only way this could be true was that the Eber [Hebrew] that lived 6 generations before Abraham [the first Hebrew] was never called by his name. Reply

Related Topics